People often grumble about smartwatch battery life, and with good reason, since even premium watches like the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 only last two to three days before needing a recharge. But Qualcomm’s forthcoming W5 chips promise up to 24 hours of battery life thanks to a range of performance and efficiency improvements.
Officially dubbed the Snapdragon W5 and W5 Plus, these new designs are the successors to the Snapdragon 4100 and 4100 Plus that power the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, TicWatch 3 Pro, and other wearables that statistically few people actually bought. Qualcomm said its new silicon achieves better battery life by reducing the size of the chip to 4nm. That’s just a fraction of the 80,000 nanometer size of a human hair and less than 12 nm in the 4100 series.
Qualcomm’s W5 Plus offers all of these benefits, plus an added feature to deliver even longer battery life, up to 24 hours longer than the previous 4100 Plus chip. The W5 Plus does this with what’s known as a co-processor, or effectively a separate computer chip designed to handle basic tasks like showing notifications.
With the W5 Plus, Qualcomm has also reduced how many of the different parts of the chip “wake up” to do something and left the rest dormant to save even more battery. For example, when you go for a run or listen to music, only the satellite GPS location service, Wi-Fi and audio portions are active. Qualcomm’s senior director of head and wearables, Pankaj Kedia, compared it to just turning on a few lights at night to get to the kitchen, rather than wastefully turning on every light in the house. “The rest of the SoC is dead, so you get longer battery life,” Kedia said.
Qualcomm’s steady drumbeat of wearable advances comes as smartwatches become more common. Smartwatches have already surpassed the entire Swiss watch industry. The question facing tech companies now is whether smartwatches will remain a relative niche product among techies and fitness enthusiasts, or whether new features can make them essential to the lives of more consumers.
Apple, by far the most popular smartwatch maker, is rumored to be making a rugged Apple Watch for extreme sports and could unveil it later this year. Meanwhile, Google is working on a new smartwatch called the Pixel Watch, which is expected to launch in the fall alongside the upcoming Google Pixel 7 to compete with the premium watches from Apple and Samsung, though there’s no word on Pixel’s pricing Watch there.
It’s also not clear what kind of chipset will power the Pixel Watch, so many of its capabilities are unknown – except that it will run Wear OS 3, Google’s wearable operating system that integrates parts of Samsung’s Tizen OS. That gives it a similar benefit to the Apple Watch: using its own software for better integration with the hardware.
“On the watch side, the problem is that the silicon has to be tightly integrated into the final product,” said Avi Greengart, president and principal analyst at research firm Techsponential. “Whereas Qualcomm had silicon products with that [Snapdragon] 3100 and 4100, it hasn’t been able to marry those with software and hardware into a product that consumers want to buy anywhere near the way Apple could.”
Despite the competition, Qualcomm’s W5 series has features that could pave the way for the next generation of wearables.
Battery, battery, battery
A key feature of Qualcomm’s W5 Plus chip is battery life. The W5 promises longer wear times, but the W5 Plus can get up to 24 hours more battery life than before with its additional power-saving features. Given that most Apple Watch models don’t last more than a day, and even the top Wear OS watches last three days at most, longer battery life is a big deal.
This focus on battery life is probably also why the Snapdragon W5 series doesn’t support 5G. Newer cellular technology promises faster web browsing, but it’s still a battery hog. As a result, all cellular-connected watches can only connect to older, slower 4G LTE networks for cellular service for now (but don’t worry, your music will still stream just fine). Qualcomm declined to comment on when we would see a wearable with 5G capabilities.
This 4G LTE cap also applies to other devices using the W5. Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories photo and video-sharing glasses, for example, used the older Snapdragon 4100 chipset, Qualcomm said. Future augmented reality glasses could use the W5, and while they don’t have 5G, they’d likely benefit from the chipset’s remaining battery efficiencies. That could help make the glasses easier to use with smaller batteries, which are key to keeping them looking as normal as possible.
W5 Series: A Real Dick Tracy Watch?
You may not know it, but Qualcomm chips have been supporting cameras since 2018. Back then, the company’s chip powered the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, which didn’t come with a camera. Few smartwatches have come out with the ability to take photos and videos, and they were either launched in China or were designed with children in mind. Mainstream smartwatches haven’t implemented cameras, but Qualcomm thinks that could change with the W5 as it has better battery life that would make taking pictures less of a chore.
These include two-way video calls, a feature gadget nerds have dreamed of since the days of Dick Tracy, plus smoother video playback and Memoji-style 3D watch faces, all made possible by cameras on watches.
Qualcomm said it has 25 products currently in development with its W5. The first will be the next-gen Oppo Watch, coming in August with the W5 chip. Qualcomm said an unnamed TicWatch will be the first to use its W5 Plus, though the chipmaker didn’t share any details about it, including whether it would have a camera. Qualcomm’s Kedia also declined to say whether the remaining 23 devices were AR glasses.
“I wish I could share the 25 customers in the pipeline — they bring a whole new meaning to next-gen wearables,” Kedia said.